El Deafo, a graphic novel by Cece Bell published in 2014 by Amulet Books
Winner of a 2015 Newbery Honor, this is the book I’ve been waiting in a longlonglong library request line to get my hands on.
And yes, it’s that good.
It’s a children’s novel that masterfully spans age categories, speaking to readers from the middle grades straight through to their grandparents. And it’s the first time a graphic novel has been awarded by the Newbery committee.
In it, author Cece Bell recollects the smidgeon of life she had as a hearing child, the bout of meningitis at age 4 that brought on her severe/profound deafness, and the tricky pathway she navigated in elementary school. We leave her while she’s in the 5th grade.
It’s a poignant story, rich with authentic emotion. It’s an honest story, granting us priceless access to Bell’s grapplings and perspectives. And it’s a funny, warm story about an ordinary girl who yearns for friendship.
Cece’s parents are strong advocates who work to mainstream their daughter from the start. She learns lip-reading and visits audiologists to find a hearing aid that meets her needs. The solution, in the 1970s, is a Phonic Ear — a bulky gizmo strapped to her chest with wires snaking up to her ears. And it’s downright embarrassing.
A surprising consequence of the Phonic Ear, however, is a superhero-level ability that is quite entertaining to Cece and provides favor with other kids, a bit of consternation, and her private alter-ego, El Deafo.
Managing self-consciousness, classmates who don’t understand, crushes on boys, and other large and small traumas, takes courage for any of us. We all know the hope, pain, nervousness, and at times loneliness, that are a part of finding our place, of establishing friends who know us, accept us, and like us. These rites of passage are magnified for Cece, as she longs to not be “the deaf girl” but simply a likable person with true friends.
Bell makes ingenious use of speech bubbles to convey deafness and a variety of hearing difficulties. The opening of the story, in fact, stunned me as she carries us through her stay in the hospital and ushers us into the silence that begins to envelop her.
It’s a narrative that among other things helps us examine our own response to those dealing with various challenging situations, and it does so in both a winsome and forthright manner. That makes it quite a remarkable gift to all of us.
A lengthy Note from the Author provides additional helpful information about various perspectives on deafness.